February 7, 2021

New Mexico bill would keep school funding steady despite enrollment drops

Enrollment has dropped in New Mexico’s public schools during the coronavirus pandemic, partly because many families have opted to home-school their children.

So state legislators are moving to maintain funding at pre-pandemic levels, typically based on the previous year’s head count.

The House Education Committee on Saturday unanimously passed House Bill 175, which would ensure no district or charter school receives less funding for next school year than this one.

“If all things remain equal, and we aren’t held harmless, we’re going to have to cut another $7 million from our budget due to a significant loss in enrollment,” said Linda Siegel, a lobbyist for Santa Fe Public Schools. “We believe that many of these families that went out of state or started home schooling will return. If we make these cuts, we’ll have to cut staff now and then hire people back when students return.”

The bill also would maintain funding for transportation based on levels before the pandemic. According to data from the Public Education Department, a majority of school districts have seen an enrollment decline of more than 5 percent this school year. Over the past five years, districts have had an average enrollment decline of 1.1 percent.

In December, Santa Fe Public Schools said it lost 570 students, or 4.5 percent, in its 40-day enrollment count from prekindergarten through 12th grade for the 2020-21 school year.

In recent years, the district’s enrollment has dropped by more than 1,000 students, from 14,473 in 2013-14 to 13,286 in 2018-19.

Rep. G. Andrés Romero, a Democrat and a teacher at Atrisco Heritage Academy High School in Albuquerque, said legislators should look at long-term fixes to unstable school funding formulas beyond the pandemic.

“Solving the problem of volatility in school funding holds a lot of merit. We really need to take this seriously moving forward beyond this year,” Romero said in a telephone interview. “The volatility is really detrimental to our school districts trying to plan.”

The bill still has to pass through the Legislative Finance Committee to become part of the final budget before reaching the governor’s desk. Legislative Education Study Committee Director Rachel Gudgel said education and appropriation leadership in both chambers will meet over the coming weeks to determine the bill’s future.